Where does violence come from? The fury we inflict upon one another might be chocked up to mindless reactions to insult or honor, but the overwhelming acts of violence we as Americans are witness to on a daily basis belie such simple explanations. Much of Ed Falco’s work has explored “the violence of the human heart and the way it’s acted out,” as he puts it. With his latest historical noir drama,Toughs, Falco grapples with the way individuals are drawn into a violent world and the type of choices they make, and the life-altering consequences of those decisions.
Toughs, in one respect, centers on the real-life slaying in 1931 of Michael Vengelli during an assassination attempt gone wrong: Vengelli was five at the time. “And that just brought me back to thinking about Chicago and New York in the contemporary world,” Falco says. Vengelli was allegedly murdered by Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll while Coll and his gang attempted to eradicate Joseph Rao, a member of rival Dutch Schultz’s gang, on a busy Harlem street. Rao survived. “The violence just spread over onto the street and that seemed like an interesting parallel to pursue with our current world situation,” Falco explains.
The novel is set amongst a heavy backdrop of Prohibition violence and gangland warfare in New York City and in upstate New York. Toughs tracks the actions of Coll and his gang in the aftermath of the Vengelli murder through the eyes of fictional protagonist Loretto Jones. Loretto witnesses the slaying, but he refuses to volunteer any information confirming Coll’s identity due to the childhood ties that bind him to Coll. Coll becomes public enemy number one to both the cops and The Combine, a cabal of Irish bosses who formed the most powerful bootlegging operation in the country. By necessity, Loretto allies with Coll as the Irish upstart and his Italian gang goes head to head with The Combine. As things begin to spiral out of control, Loretto is faced with the existential realities of the path he has chosen.
Loretto’s character is inspired by Falco’s grandfather, a man he describes as quiet and gentle with a full head of white hair. He had always held this beatific image of him; not until recently did Falco discover that he had a gangster past. The dichotomy of the violent man his grandfather might have been in his youth and the restrained, amiable man he had become was of extreme interest to the author. “It made me think about a character like Loretto, who might have been violent in his youth, but then later takes a route that brings him to a more peaceful place,” Falco says.
Falco grew up in Brooklyn, “before it was gentrified,” he’s quick to add, a place he describes as “a rough part of the city.” Male anger was prevalent in his youth and in his family: He recounts the story of a guy he watched get laid out with a baseball bat. “I can see the baseball bat hitting his head,” he says. “I can see the way his legs wobbled. I can see him falling. Those things, they don’t leave you.” The exploration of what witnessing violence—and creating it—does to the psyche permeates Toughs. Coll watched six of his brothers die and was murdered at the age of 25, taking dozens to the grave in his brief existence. “In all of my writing there’s a recognition that violence and that kind of behavior comes out of circumstances,” Falco says. “I don’t believe in evil; I believe that circumstances create people.”
Falco left Brooklyn to teach in the mountains of southwest Virginia at Virginia Tech, “which is about as far away as you can get” from the setting of Toughs, he says. Seven years ago, though, Virginia Tech was the site of one of the deadliest school shootings in history, the Virginia Tech Massacre. “There’s no getting away from violence in the world,” bemoans Falco.
Evan Rodriguez is a freelance writer living in Central Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.